By Alex Richards
Having successfully crossed the Rhine in 1638, Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar was poised to move the focus of conflict in the Southern front of the Thirty Years war into Swabia and away from Alsace. Yet while this was undoubtedly of benefit to his French backers Bernhard’s own ambitions would soon come to exemplify the complex relationships between the independent military commanders in the Empire and their financial supporters. The Siege of Breisach With his bridgehead secured, Bernhard made his immediate objective the securing of the Austrian Breisgau- a large territory on the eastern bank of the Rhine lying in the crux where the river bends towards the North. In this he was uniting both strategic and personal motives- the large garrison at Breisach represented to risky a threat to supply chains to attempt to advance without neutralising it; the securing of the Breisach would reduce the ability for Imperial forces to cross into Alsace; and crucially Bernhard believed that the most likely way to ensure he emerged from the conflict with a territory of his own to rule was to conquer it directly. In this, Richelieu’s past actions in limiting his attempts to acquire all of Alsace as payment for fighting for France remained a fresh concern. In this he had the assistance of Jean-Baptiste de Burdes, Comte de Guébriant; Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne; and 4,500 French troops sent by Richelieu, though 2,000 of these deserted within a month as the disasters of the previous few years had convinced many in France that campaigning across the Rhine was a death sentence. By May 19th the administrative centre of Freiburg had been captured, and Breisach put under siege, with Bernhard concentrating his infantry and artillery on the siege efforts while utilising his cavalry for actions further afield. For the rest of the year the campaign turned into a series of manoeuvres focused on the Imperial efforts to relieve Breisach, with command entrusted to Johann, Count Görz. Görz gathered 13,500 men at Rottweil, in addition to which he co-ordinated with Duke Charles IV of Lorraine who was at this point holding out with 5,000 men in the Franche-Comté. Initially Görz was able to get supplies into Breisach for the defenders, but from the end of June onwards the besieging force was able to cut these off entirely- a situation exasperated by an accidental power store explosion that also destroyed a significant quantity of Breisach’s flour stores. Attempts to circle around Breisach were also rebuffed, either by Bernhard’s cavalry under Georg Christoph von Taupadel or by the strength of the French garrisons in Alsace when Görz tried to draw Bernhard off through an attack on Rhine’s western bank.
The Battle of Wittenweier
Come 7th August, Görz and Savelli had regrouped at Offenbach, only to be surprised the following day when Bernhard attacked, having moved up from Breisach without them realising. While the battle of the 8th August at Friesenheim was a mere minor clash- Bernhard withdrawing when he realised the terrain was unsuitable for his cavalry to operate in- the following day’s battle at nearby Wittenweier reads as a catalogue of errors on the Imperial side. Not only had they failed to gather the necessary intelligence to warn them about Bernhard’s attack, they also failed to adequately scout Bernhard’s positions. Instead, Savelli with two-thirds of the army advanced quickly and without caution, trusting that a large wood would screen his advance. His supply train was left far to his rear- too far to be able to usefully use the ammunition, but close enough to effectively block the retreat- and Bernhard’s hidden artillery and musketmen were able to rout Savelli’s cavalry in the initial attack. Savelli was wounded himself, and fled, though by this point Görz had arrived on the scene and managed to capture some of Bernhard’s artillery.
However, while Görz was a far superior commander, Bernhard’s ability to press Savelli’s captured artillery into use, the already weak morale of the Imperial army and the large losses which had undone his initial advantage in troop numbers all took their toll. After 5 hours, Görz retreated, having lost 2,000 men and with another 3,000 wounded. Bernhard had suffered only 1,000 or so casualties, which he replenished by pressing some of the 1,700 captured Imperial troops into his service. While the defeat itself would have been sufficient to prevent any further attempts to relieve Breisach for at least a couple of months, the fundamental issues underlying the Imperial army by this point now bore true. After years of fighting, most regiments were understrength and had only a small contingent of veteran fighters. Severely bloodied, with Savelli having a track record of using his court connections to get out of trouble and with all the issues of being short of pay or supplies that plagued all sides by the late 1630s, the army essentially disintegrated on the retreat. Out of 18,500 men at the start of the battle, Görz arrived back in Offenbach with only 3,000.
While disease and desertion wore away at both the defenders and the besiegers at Breisach- eventually reaching the point where merchants were able to sneak in and sell some limited supplies at exorbitant prices- the Imperial effort to relieve Breisach became somewhat farcical. Görz lost the confidence of his troops who believed him to be secretly negotiating with Bernhard while he waited for reinforcements in Rottweil. Savelli had barely more success at getting food into the city even with the advantage of being able to cross the Rhine securely at Philippsburg. Charles of Lorraine made an attempt at relieving the town, but completely mistimed his advance and Bernhard was able to cross the Rhine and defeat him in detail before Görz was in a position to move himself. The latter would advance the following month, only to find himself repulsed by the besiegers, and the effects of his less experienced troops and the lack of supplies from the total abandonment of the area by the inhabitants were too difficult for him to overcome. What had already happened with Duke Charles now effectively happened with the rest of the Imperial army as both Görz and Savelli made separate attempts to advance forward, only to find that their separated armies were defeated in detail. Breisach itself finally fell on December 17th 1638, isolating Charles of Lorraine sufficiently that his last Alsatian fortress fell mere months later, and securing Alsace for the French to the extent that Richelieu converted the existing military administration into the start of a new civilian government as part of plans to annex the area.
It is possible that if all these various forces had managed to link up at once they may have been able to defeat Bernhard, relieve Breisach and prevent the French from successfully establishing themselves on the Swabian side of the Rhine, but neither Duke Charles of Lorraine nor Savelli were particularly competent commanders, and the Imperial army was suffering from severe supply issues. Görz - who had managed to gather the largest number of reinforcements by scraping together garrisons from Franconia and Bohemia, together with reinforcements originally intended for the Spanish in Italy – soon found himself leading an army that was already half-dead from starvation before battle even commenced. Lacking shoes or stockings, with their horses dying around them and supplementing a meagre bread ration with thistles and snakes, it is likely that even combined the armies would have been a poor match for Bernhard’s troops- who though suffering from losses and shortages themselves had the advantage of entrenched defensive positions and higher morale.
Bernhard after Breisach
Bernhard did not have long to enjoy his successes however. He spent the remainder of the winter in the less devastated Franche-Comté where his army was better able to seize supplies from the local populace. By April, he was preparing a new campaign against the Imperial forces in Swabia, while at the same time attempting to secure his true desire- a new Principality to rule in the conquered Austrian territories. From Richelieu he demanded recognition of his ownership of Alsasce, the Breisgau and the Bishopric of Alsace as a new principality- which given Richelieu’s desire for Alsace and the fact the Bishopric of Basel hadn’t even been formally occupied at this point can be viewed as either a strong opening demand he was expecting to moderate on, or an effective declaration of independence from French service. His desired next steps are difficult to determine however, as he died on July 18th 1639, probably from disease, though a rumour he’d been poisoned by Richelieu persisted for many years. In the aftermath there was a scramble by Sweden, the Empire, France and even Karl Ludwig of the Palatinate to get control of the now leaderless armies, but there was little anyone other than the French could offer in terms of the finances needed to pay the troops, and Guébriant was able to persuade the leaders of the Bernhardine forces to accept formal French command in return for retaining their current positions and garrison posts.
Had Bernhard survived, it’s likely that two things would have happened. Firstly, that he would have sought to expand his area of control- possibly by invading the Bishopric of Basel, possibly by moving north towards Baden-Baden or into Württemberg, possibly by attacking towards Konstanz. In this, he would have been seeking both territory for his desired principality, and bargaining chips to make that a reality. The second point is that he would have been in a significant clash with Richelieu, and may well have ended 1639 out of French service. While there are suggestions that he was intending to create a new third-fore in Germany by marrying Amalie Elisabeth of Hesse-Kassel, the most likely route to this would have been through formally defecting back to Sweden. France’s only real hope of preventing this would have been at least a partial recognition of Bernhard’s desires- certainly possession of the Breisgau as a new Saxon principality to be inherited by his heirs, potentially the inclusion of at least the Austrian Sundgau in Alsace as well. In either case, the biggest challenge would have been the Peace of Westphalia itself. Here Bernhard would have been at risk of being hung out to dry in order to secure better peace agreements elsewhere, and for either France or Sweden his position as a key commander and effective ruler of substantial territories would have been crucial in ensuring that his reward was achieved. Historically Austria was willing to cede the Sundgau to France directly, it is possible that with Bernhard being such an independent character Vienna would have judged that the establishment of an essentially neutral state would be worth the price of losing the Breisgau as well. Whether Bernhard would have been content with this in the longer-term is a different matter. As it was, his death in 1639 could only have been considered as something of a relief for Richelieu once his armies had been secured. He had served the purpose France needed of him in securing Alsace from attack and moving the front firmly over the Rhine. In doing so however he had demonstrated both the increasing shortage of supplies in the South of the Empire, and the fundamental flaws lying within both the Imperial and French armies in the area.
Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP